The Twilight of Socialism

Surprise! We are told that the Pope is a socialist. In this, apparently, he is like his predecessors, Paul VI and John XXIII. If recent history is any indication, American political liberals will claim the Pope as their ally. And docile conservatives, making no effort to dispute that claim, will grumble that the Pope doesn’t know about economics, anyway.

The Pope is a socialist: now just exactly what does that mean? That he comes from a country ruled by a socialist government? True enough, but then he is an outspoken critic of that government. That his discourses on economics employ the terms and analyses of the social-democratic school that dominates European teaching? True, again, but not particularly interesting; no one should look to the Vatican for the latest techniques of economic analysis. That he accepts, unquestioningly, the prevailing interpretation of economic history? Again true; again not interesting.

But of course these are not the claims that we hear put forth today. No, when men like Kenneth Woodward and Gregory Baum say that the Pope is a socialist, they mean that the Pope preaches socialism. Now that would be interesting, if it were true. But it is not.

Ever since John XXIII promulgated Mater et Magistra, the popular wisdom has insisted that Catholic social teachings favor socialism. Interpreters have given short shrift to Pius XI’s blunt statement that “no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true Socialist.” After all, the interpreters pointed out, John XXIII had acknowledged that historical movements could change in character, and become acceptable. And in Octegesima Adveniens, Paul VI had more or less explicitly stated that socialism had undergone just such a transformation. Therefore, socialism was now acceptable. Q.E.D.

But to be acceptable is a far cry from being obligatory. On political questions, the Catholic Church is pluralistic; any movement compatible with Christian morality is acceptable, and laymen active in politics are encouraged to pursue social justice by whatever means they consider most effective. The Church does not endorse or condemn any legitimate political program. As John Paul put it at the United Nations, “The Church wishes to stay free with regard to competing systems, in order to opt for man.”

Moreover, Pope Paul’s admission that socialism is no longer incompatible with Christianity may be a testimony more to the dramatic mutations in socialist theory than to any change in the Church’s traditional hostility. The Church does place some limitations on the political movements Catholic laymen may serve. And at least two of those limitations are inimical to orthodox socialism.

First, the Church strongly supports private ownership of property. Even Mater et Magistra, the beta noire of the American Right, begins with a twenty-page defense of private property. To be sure, John XXIII saw reasons for government regulation of the marketplace, but he cautioned that such regulations “should be such that they not only avoid restricting the freedom of private citizens, but also increase it.”

Second — and related — Catholic social thought is deeply distrustful of central planning. The principle of subsidiarity suggests that political (and economic) decisions should be made on the most decentralized practicable level, so that the individual retains the greatest possible freedom to fulfill his own dignity. Again, John Paul reinforces the argument in Laborem Exercens, calling for the development of “a wide range of intermediate bodies with economic, social, and cultural purposes; they would be bodies enjoying real autonomy with regard to the public powers. . . ”

If the Holy Father is a socialist, then, he is a socialist of a very strange stripe: one who supports private ownership of property and opposes central economic planning. For that matter, anyone who reads Laborem Exercens objectively cannot fail to catch the Pope’s admiration for the productive power of the entrepreneurial spirit. (Shortly after that encyclical appeared, the New Republic featured a cover photograph of His Holiness, with the caption: “Is This Man A Supply-Sider?” The New Republic editors thereby demonstrated that they understood neither papal thought nor supply-side economics.)

Why, then, do intelligent analysts claim that the Pope is a socialist? For two reasons, I think. First, because the rhetoric of papal speeches matches the rhetoric of socialist ideologues. Second, because the Pope is critical of capitalism.

On the rhetorical front, it is simply pathetic to see educated reporters leaping to the assumption that anyone who decries poverty and inequality, and calls for peace and social justice, is motivated by socialist ideology. Christians have been enjoined to serve the poor since (at least) the Sermon on the Mount. But the mass media, trained only to see the struggles of political partisans, hear the Pope using the same words employed by the political Left, and assume that he is following their lead. Actually, the situation is precisely the reverse. One of the greatest triumphs of socialist rhetoric has been the expropriation of Christian language. If the Pope sometimes sounds like a socialist, it is not because he is using their language, but because they are using his.

As for the papal critiques of capitalism, they illustrate merely that the Church is not content with any worldly system or ideology. Capitalism, as an economic system, is morally neutral; it makes no effort to distinguish between saints and sinners in the marketplace. Without some underlying moral framework, capitalism can lapse into moral decadence. The Pope sees signs of decadence in our society, and calls for spiritual revival to combat them. Does that constitute socialism? Actually, many of those same criticisms apply with equal force to socialist economies. The Pope’s primary target is not the free-market economy, but the materialist culture. As he put it in Redemptor Hominis, “What is in question is the advancement of persons, not just the multiplying of things that people can use. It is a matter . . . not so much of ‘having more’ as of ‘being more.’

By

Philip F. Lawler, a former editor of Crisis Magazine, is the author most recently, of Contagious Faith: Why the Church Must Spread Hope, Not Fear, in a Pandemic.

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